In-Ear Insights Trust and Influencer Marketing Strategy

In-Ear Insights: Trust and Influencer Marketing Strategy

In this episode of In-Ear Insights, the Trust Insights podcast, Katie and Chris discuss the crisis of trust in institutions, influencer marketing strategy, and what it means for your marketing. Learn why Gen Z gravitates toward individual influencers and away from brands. Discover how to adapt your marketing to include influencers, even if you’re not a Fortune 100 company. You’ll also learn how to mitigate the risks associated with building a marketing platform around an individual, such as using joint ventures with clear ownership and performance metrics.

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In-Ear Insights: Trust and Influencer Marketing Strategy

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Machine-Generated Transcript

What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.

Christopher Penn – 00:00
In this week’s In-Ear Insights, let’s talk about the maybe less savory side of the way some of the ways AI is being used, the way people are reacting, and what it means for your business. So the World Economic Forum recently had a paper come out that said that essentially generative AI — it’s AI itself — but generative AI, in particular, is the largest single new source of disinformation: willfully incorrect information being used by hostile states to mess with elections and things like that, deep fakes and so on and so forth. It also stated that the world needs to get their arms around this before it causes a new dark age.

That’s one piece of this puzzle. The second piece of this puzzle was a recent piece — I want to say it was on Business Insider, I don’t remember — I saw it on LinkedIn saying that Gen Z’s media consumption, because of a lack of trust in all institutions, is wildly different. The Gen Z media diet now is hyper-focused around individual influencers, as a YouTuber or a TikToker that you follow, and you are all in on that personality because you get value from them. You believe them, and not the corporate media news complex or the politician.

When you put these two things together, what it says for marketers and business folks is we have a substantial crisis of trust in all the traditional institutions. If your marketing — which, spoiler, it is all marketing — is based on trust, if your marketing is being perceived, particularly by younger generations, as not being trustworthy, what do you do? How do you build a strategy?

Christopher Penn – 01:49
Do you have to grow your own influencer so that you have those raving loyalists who follow just that one person? There’s a lot of different angles to attack this, but the fundamental problem is — because of things like generative AI — there is a dramatic lack of trust in all institutions, including us as companies, as marketers. So, Katie, what’s your take on this?

Katie Robbert – 02:14
It is interesting to hear that younger generations are focusing on individual influencers. It makes sense because, Chris, you and I grew up where the internet wasn’t readily available. We didn’t have cell phones. We would basically stay out until you could start to see the first few stars and then knew it was time to go home for dinner — all of those stereotypes, but they’re true. We got our information from the news channels, from newspapers, from magazines, from these corporate outlets.

I can understand why younger generations have a lot less trust in them — and they should be skeptical. For good or ill, there’s no one really policing that information to say, “Yes, this is true, this is not.” There’s been some controls put in place to say, “Cite your sources,” or so on and so forth, but it all comes down to what you personally believe. What’s concerning to me is that what I’m hearing you say is that younger generations are focused on one or two influencers, which means that one person carries a lot of weight with their words because you’re then all in. It’s — my favorite thing — it’s very cultish. It very much becomes like the gospel according to this one person.

Katie Robbert – 03:46
All of that being said, the other thing that I’ve seen over the past few years, decade, however you want to say it with social media, is that there’s less focus on brand in social and more focus on the individuals who work for the brand. You can have a brand account unless you’re like a Wendy’s or a Burger King, where they’re totally unhinged on social media. You really want to have those individual people representing the company because that’s who people — that’s who other prospects and audience members — are going to follow versus, “I’m going to follow Trust Insights, the brand.” They’re like, “No, I’m going to follow Chris, or I’m going to follow Katie, or I’m going to follow both,” and they just happen to be representing Trust Insights, the brand.

I can understand why people are looking to individual influencers, and that means that our responsibility as thought leaders, as marketers, is to be setting that tone, is to be putting that information out there that we see as correct and trustworthy and valuable and useful and helpful, and not just more noise adding to the chaos.

Christopher Penn – 05:13
One person, Doctor Theresa McPhail on Threads, calls it the “anxiety industrial complex” — that the mainstream news media basically make money on making people angry and upset all the time. The more that you do that, the more clicks you get, the more ads you sell, etcetera. Her perspective on it was somehow we need to wean people off of news, sort of this anxiety-provoking news cycle. The flip side of that is exactly what you said, which is people trust other people. A brand isn’t a person. I mean, corporations are people under the law, but a brand is not a person. Katie Robbert is a person, and so it’s — you’ve already got that natural affinity in place to say, “Okay, well, it’s one person to another.”

Christopher Penn – 06:01
I like what you said about people having — who are in that role — having a responsibility to that role. A lot of folks don’t. The flip side of that — and this is something that is a sociological thing — is that in times of uncertainty, in times of doubt, in times of confusion, a lot of people want to be told what to do. A lot of people might say, “Someone else, think for me, just tell me what I need to do so that I can get through this day, period. I can get through this day without, like, being under my desk, curled up in a ball.” So, as marketers, and I think the example you highlighted of literally the two of us versus the corporate brand is an excellent example because we’re not a Fortune 100. What should a company’s strategy be like?

Do you go all-in on the personalities? What is then? Do you — how heavily do you market the brand? How heavily do you market the personality? You and I are in a unique situation versus most other brands. You and I are contractually obligated to each other till the end of time, so neither one of us could leave the company. But a lot of companies, that’s not the case. You may have an influencer — Robert Scoble is probably the most famous example. He worked for Microsoft for years, and when he left to Rackspace, he took his audience with him and Microsoft no longer had that platform. So, how should we think about this as marketers and as strategists, this personality-driven — forget influencer — this personality-driven marketing landscape, what do we do with that from a strategy perspective?

Katie Robbert – 07:34
Well, I mean, you highlight a good point. It’s definitely a risk unless somebody is contractually obligated, like you and I are. Until the end of time, end of days, world is on fire, we’ll still be trying to make Trust Insights happen. But I mean, it’s definitely a risk. It starts with very clear expectations and boundaries. So, let’s say, Chris, that you weren’t an owner of Trust Insights, that I had hired you as a data scientist, and you were an employee at will, and you could leave at any time, or I could let you go at any time. During the time that you are engaged with Trust Insights, we would need to figure out, from a strategic standpoint, what does that look like for you to bring your audience into the Trust Insights ecosystem?

Then what does it look like if you decide this is no longer a good fit for me? I think that’s part of the conversation upfront. “Okay, so you’re not an owner. You don’t have equity, but we want you to be a part of the brand. What does that look like?” But then you also need to just be prepared to discuss that exit strategy of, “Okay, so you’ve brought on 30,000 new followers during the time period that you were engaged with Trust Insights. If you leave, what happens to those 30,000? Do you actively make an effort to transition them to the Trust Insights brand?” I feel like when you’re talking about strategy, like, that’s all the information, those data points that need to be agreed upon beforehand.

Because what happens — and you’ve had this, you’ve experienced this yourself, Chris — is that you have a personal brand that other companies have piggybacked off of without any sort of contractual strings. Then you leave and they’re like, “Well, wait a second. What the heck? You took the whole audience with you.” And you’re like, “Well, yeah, because nobody said I couldn’t and I’m not contractually obligated and you’re not paying me to keep them with you.” I feel like that’s where — so when I say like, “It’s a risk” — that’s the risk. It’s not a risk to invest in people. It’s a risk to not think through an exit strategy for both sides.

Christopher Penn – 09:56
Exactly right. In fact, the last company we worked at before we created Trust Insights, my employment contract was radically different from every other employee’s because I had to specify, “These media properties are mine. They are not the company’s. The work I do for these things outside of work, not on company equipment, is mine. The intellectual property I create for that stuff is mine, etcetera. And it goes with me.” And you can see that — it’s actually funny when you go back and look at what’s happened since then — a lot of that stuff has just gone away. Now, what was a distinguishing feature of that company and part of the reason for its sale is no longer even part of that company’s DNA anymore. And that comes with the business issues.

So a big part of, to what you’re saying, the planning around this is going through the process. “What could go wrong? What are the things that could go wrong? Who owns what? What are the responsibilities?” If you were to think about it in the same way that you would an influencer marketing engagement, that’s actually a really good idea. Like, “These are the obligations. You will promote the company in your newsletter each week. You will post once a week on social like this,” and stuff. “And in exchange, we’ll hand you this big pile of money to do those things. And if you don’t do those things, then this happens,” and so on and so forth. Unsurprising, it would behoove people to spend some time thinking about what this would look like.

Katie Robbert – 11:25
I don’t see anything wrong with planning. In this situation, planning for things not working out. I could say to you, “Okay, Chris, when this relationship ends, here’s what it’s looked like.” You might say, “Well, I’m all in. I’m always going to be an employee of Trust Insights,” like, in this fictitious scenario. And I could be like, “Great, I love it. I love that energy. Let’s keep bringing it.” However, I’m a realist, and things happen. Let’s say you decide that you want to do something different, or we decide that we’re doing something different, or the company gets sold, and that decision is out of our hands. Let’s make sure we’re all protected.

I think that’s the way to handle the conversation because it can feel uncomfortable when you’re just starting a new professional relationship to be like, “Okay, so when this ends…” You’re like, “But it’s day one. What do you mean it’s going to end?” I don’t want to sound callous to say, “It’s just business,” but you need to have someone in the room who’s willing to say, “At the end of the day, regardless of how invested you are emotionally, things happen, and we need to have those controls in place.” I mean, I hate to say it, but it’s sort of akin to, like, a prenuptial agreement in a marriage. It’s very unromantic. It’s very much like, “Well, what do you mean it’s not going to work out? We’re totally in love, and we’re going to be together forever.”

Then you find out three days after the marriage that he leaves his socks everywhere, or she doesn’t know how to load the dishwasher, and you’ve decided that those are life-ending things, and you just can’t stay in the marriage anymore. There’s always going to be something that happens. Chris, when you’re asking about the strategy, I’m focused a lot on the contract and the expectations, but I feel like it then sort of puts everybody on the same page for when you are then becoming that thought leader, when you do have that responsibility. Because, to your point, a lot of people who are, quote-unquote, “thought leaders” don’t see themselves as having that responsibility of, “Here’s what I should be saying. Here’s what I should be doing.” I’m not talking about censorship.

Katie Robbert – 13:51
I’m talking about being valuable to the audience and the brand that you’re representing.

Christopher Penn – 13:58
That’s exactly right. Part of that is also conditioned — particularly the earlier part of what you’re saying — by this bizarre, cult-like system of thought that people have, like, “Oh, your team is just like a family.” No, your team is like a sports team, and players get traded all the time because you’re trying to build a winning team to win more games, whereas the whole family thing is just weird. Because of the nature of a late-stage capitalist society, a lot of people’s personal identity is bound up in their work, and so you do get that emotional investment of, “This is — this is who I am.” When you leave the job, where the job leaves you, a big part of your identity is up in question.

To your point, if you sit down and figure out contractually, “This is who you are. This is who the company is. This is the line that divides the two. When you do stuff on your own time, on your own equipment, you own that and that’s yours. What’s the process — the five Ps — if you want to bring some of that IP over into the company you’re working for at the time, that has to be spelled out.” Because if it’s not spelled out, then you get into uncomfortable situations like, “Okay, who owns the social media accounts?” There are very prominent people in the marketing space who happen to also have the same handle as their company. If they leave, their hundreds of thousands of audience members go with them because it’s their personal account. I don’t know that anyone’s ever said contractually, “This is — this is what we have to do.”

Katie Robbert – 15:39
Mm.

Christopher Penn – 15:40
Now, let’s flip it away from the contract side of things to the performance side of things. For companies thinking about building a platform around individuals, what should they be thinking about? Obviously, the purpose is, “We want more. We want more audience. We want more leads. We want more sales.” The performance is more audience, more leads, more sales. What are the three Ps in the middle, and how do people think about building that? Again, let’s go back to your example. I like a fictitious example where “Fake Chris” starts working for Trust Insights. How do you, as the leader of Trust Insights, think about, “Well, what do I want out of this? And how do I build a platform that’s mutually beneficial?”

Katie Robbert – 16:28
Right. The first thing I want to do — it’s great that you have, like, a high-follower account, like, that’s definitely a plus in the plus column for you — but what I need to do is figure out, is it the right audience for us? Your however many followers, only a small fraction of that might be the correct audience for us. So, that’s the first place I start, is analyzing who’s in your audience, who’s in your personal brand’s audience that there’s overlap with my company. Knowing that information — that’s where — so that’s the people. So, who are the people? I’m going to start singing Mister Rogers. “Who are the people in the neighborhood?” But I won’t do that to you people. It’s cruel and unusual.

So, who are the people in Chris’s audience that would also benefit from information about Trust Insights, about what we do, about our approach, so on and so forth? So that’s the people. The process then is figuring out, “Okay, Chris, you are an employee at will, so you still have a right to own your brand, to own your handles, to own your social, to own your content. What is the process for getting Trust Insights content in there as well?” That’s where we have to start to figure out, “Okay, so if you’re posting six times a week, could two or three of those posts be Trust Insights related? What is the process for linking back to Trust Insights versus linking back to christopherspenn.com?” Those are — that’s where you start to figure out the nuts and bolts of everything.

Katie Robbert – 18:04
Then also the platform. I know you span your audience — spans a lot of different platforms — but that might not be true for Trust Insights. If you’re working with someone who is basically contractually obligated to talk about your company, you want to make sure you are focusing the efforts, and not just like, “Well, you’re everywhere, so we should probably be everywhere, too.” I would look at the analysis of the people and say, “It looks like we have the most overlap on YouTube, for example. Let’s figure out how we can create some co-branded or Trust Insights-branded content. That’s our process. And then let’s get it up on YouTube.” That’s where we start to look at the performance of: Is that the right tactic?

Katie Robbert – 18:54
Are we getting more prospects, leads, based on the content you’re putting out on YouTube, which leads back to the purpose?

Christopher Penn – 19:03
Exactly. From the venture capital world, one thing that conceptually you might want to do with an influencer or personality is build a new joint venture. A good example would be the In-Ear Insights podcast, where it is a combination of Katie Robbert’s personal brand, Christopher Penn’s personal brand, in a new entity that has its own rules, has its own audience, and critically, has agreements around it, saying, “Here’s who owns this. Here’s what we do with this audience, here’s how we promote this thing,” and so on and so forth. That encourages the influencer to contribute their audience to it. That obviously encourages the company to bring the company’s audience to it. That sets up its own performance metrics of how many people are tuning into the podcast, and so on and so forth.

As a result, it takes away a lot of those gray areas like, “Well, who owns this thing? If you’re posting on your Twitter account, does the company own that? Do you own that?” and so on and so forth. Whereas if you have that joint venture — and In-Ear Insights, as an example, had its own Twitter account, its own Instagram account — there would be no question. Because it’s a joint venture structured as its own essential entity, as its own central media property, then the ownership is spelled out from the beginning in brand-new paper, brand-new contracts, everything, and no one has to wonder, “What do we do with this thing?” That’s a potential strategy for working that out. Then all the promotional efforts are also spelled out: “Here’s how we’re going to promote this show. Here’s how we’re going to spend ads on this show,” and so on and so forth.

Katie Robbert – 20:45
Your KPI, as the quote-unquote “influencer,” is focused on growing those brand channels, not necessarily your channels. When things — when everybody — decides that it’s time to move on, you’re not taking those brand channels with you. Again, in this fictitious Christopher F. — not S, but F. — Pen scenario — that’s going to be the new Fake Chris. Christopher Fake Chris. We don’t have “inear insights” as a handle. We don’t have “inbox insights” as a handle. We would need to figure out what does it look like — and this is part of the process — what does it look like for Christopher F. Pen to help us grow those particular assets, promote those assets?

Again, that all comes with the strategy. If your audience skews on the younger side, and they consume information in a certain way, you have to adapt to those audiences. That’s where a lot of the bigger brands are struggling. They’re so focused on the way that we’ve always done it, “We can just put out some mailers or blast our whole list of people with one single email, and it’s going to appeal to everybody.” It just doesn’t work that way anymore. Consumers expect personalization. They expect it. They expect you, the brand, to meet them where they are, not the other way around because the control is in their hands, literally. They can choose what to consume and what not to consume.

Katie Robbert – 22:29
Chris, when you and I were growing up, we didn’t have those choices. We were basically given, like, “Here’s the five ways you can get information. Take it or leave it.” Now, I — there’s probably a bunch that I’m not even aware of — and the ways in which people get information and they’re getting their news and information in unconventional ways. It’s not news outlets. It’s not articles or press releases or news shows. That’s not how they’re getting it. So, we, as marketers, we as thought leaders, we as influencers, have to adapt.

That goes back to the five Ps of understanding your people, understanding your audience, understanding the process of how they consume information and creating your content to meet them, and then what platforms they’re on, where to disseminate it, and that bookends with purpose and performance.

Christopher Penn – 23:26
One other thing I’ve noticed, too, is that even for very large personalities and things, what they’re doing is they’re atomizing not just their content, but also the channels themselves. You mentioned In-Ear Insights was not set up as being separate from the Trust Insights brand. Today — in today’s media environment, 2024 — if we were starting over, that’s exactly what we would do. It would be its own media product. The reason for that is what we see from a behavioral perspective is people are tuning in — the people tuning in to just the only thing that they want. They don’t want multiple different topics on a channel they want to go to. If you go to Guga Foods, or Sous Vide Everything, if you tune into the sous vide channel, you only want to watch content about sous vide. Even if there’s another great recipe on the main grilling channel, that’s not what people are there for. They want just that one thing.

That’s another consideration, too, when you’re working with influencers and personalities, that joint venture idea may be the way to say, “Okay, this new thing, here’s exactly what you’re going to get, and so if you subscribe to it, we know you want exactly that and nothing else. If you want the other things, here’s the other things that are available as well.” It’s a lot more work, but it’s the way the audience works.

Katie Robbert – 24:39
It’s a lot more work, and that’s where you go back to the strategy and the purpose of what it is we’re trying to do. Unless you have a dedicated army of people, you can’t do it all. Chris, you and I, as we’ve stated very openly, this is two-thirds of the company. We can’t do it all. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like fresh air and sleep and things that come with not working 24/7. But I’m willing to put in the hard work if I know what I’m working towards. I think you and I, our takeaway is we need to take a look at who is in our audience, how they are consuming, and are we giving them — are we delivering our content — in a way that we’re meeting them where they are? I would say we are likely about 75% good. I’m guessing there’s a good chunk of our audience that we’re missing because we’re not delivering content in a way that they would want to consume it. That’s something that we need to look at. Is it a decision-making audience? Is it an audience that we want to reach? Those are all questions that we have to answer so that we can focus our tactics.

Christopher Penn – 25:59
Exactly. To wrap up, trust is at an all-time low in major institutions. Trust in individuals is ascendant as a result, and your strategy for marketing in 2024 and beyond has got to reflect that new reality. To do that safely, you need to figure out:

  • What is the purpose?
  • Who is involved and what audience is involved?
  • How are you going to divide things up so that everyone is treated fairly and there’s mutual benefit?
  • What are the platforms and pieces that you’re going to use and are you going to build net new things? Are you going to piggyback off what’s there?

That all has major implications for the lawyers and the operations folks. Finally, how are you going to measure success? What are the measures of success for anything that is personality-driven as opposed to brand-driven because, at the end of the day, you still got to make some money. Somehow you got to make some money.

If you’ve got thoughts about how you would like or how you’re doing this right now, successfully or unsuccessfully, share them in our free Analytics for Marketers Slack group. Go to trustinsights.ai/analytics-for-marketers, where you and over 3,500 other marketers are asking and answering each other’s questions every single day. Wherever it is you watch or listen to this show, if there’s a channel you’d rather have it on instead, go to trustinsights.ai/tipodcast, where you can find us in the places where most podcasts are served. Thanks for tuning in, and we’ll talk to you next time.


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Trust Insights (trustinsights.ai) is one of the world's leading management consulting firms in artificial intelligence/AI, especially in the use of generative AI and AI in marketing. Trust Insights provides custom AI consultation, training, education, implementation, and deployment of classical regression AI, classification AI, and generative AI, especially large language models such as ChatGPT's GPT-4-omni, Google Gemini, and Anthropic Claude. Trust Insights provides analytics consulting, data science consulting, and AI consulting.

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